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A natural harmony

China Daily Global| Updated: July 6, 2023 L M S


Guzheng player Yuan Sha's new album, Lotus Emerging Out of Water, was recorded in a unique way to capture the sounds of nature. CHINA DAILY

The latest album by guzheng player Yuan Sha takes listeners on a unique outdoor journey, Chen Nan reports.

Guzheng (Chinese zither) player Yuan Sha decided to record the chirping of a forest bird, leaves rustling in the wind, and the croaking of frogs in her latest album, referring to them as nature's music.

"I've spent my life releasing albums featuring both classic and contemporary guzheng pieces, as well as recordings of crossover performances. When I prepared for this new album, I wanted to do something different," says Yuan, whose new album, Lotus Emerging Out of Water, was released in Beijing on June 19.

Instead of recording music in studios or concert halls, Yuan, along with her team, including sound engineer Li Dakang, went to the foot of Juyongguan Great Wall, a scenic area in Beijing, to capture her playing while being connected to the natural world.

"The recording process was much more difficult than we expected. In the beginning, we recorded the album in the daytime but there was too much unwanted noise, such as planes flying overhead and from families living nearby," says Yuan. "Therefore, we decided to record during the night."

The team rested during the day and started to work around midnight.

"I had never played my instrument outside in the middle of the night before. I could hear the voice of nature, such as the falling rain, the flowing river and the singing of the insects," says Yuan, adding that the quietness enabled the team to concentrate more effectively.

"When we recorded the album, it was around the time of the Mid-Autumn Festival, and we saw the beautiful moon illuminate the night sky," adds Yuan. "I played under the moon and there were fishes jumping out of a nearby pond. Their sounds were recorded along with my playing."

Working with Universal Music China, a division of the Universal Music Group, Yuan selected 12 pieces for the new album, which opens with Autumn Moon Over the Calm Lake, a popular piece of Cantonese folk music that Yuan adapted and plays alongside another guzheng player Xia Tong.

She displays the versatility of guzheng — a stringed instrument with more than 2,500 years of history — by playing with other musicians.

For example, on the track titled Everlasting Longing, which Yuan adapted from an ancient Chinese musical work, she performs alongside guitarist Na Mu, and Zhang Di, who plays both flute and xiao (a vertical bamboo flute). The music piece is based on a famous poem with the same title by Tang Dynasty (618-907) poet Li Bai, which conveys a mood of profound melancholy.


Yuan (center) plays the titular piece of the album with an ensemble at the Forbidden City Concert Hall in Beijing on June 16. CHINA DAILY

In the titular work, Lotus Emerging Out of Water, a classic guzheng piece, Yuan performs with harpist Zhang Xiaodi. The piece is an ode to the elegance of the noble lotus, the roots of which sit in the muddy water, making the flower a symbol of purification.

"Traditionally, we make recordings with an atmosphere of nature by using various sound effects, which is digital and unnatural. By working outdoors at night, I was inspired. The sounds were right there, going on and on," says Li Dakang. "It will create a very different experience for the listeners."

Born and raised in Taizhou, Zhejiang province, Yuan learned to play the piano as a child. At 6 years old, she started to learn to play guzheng, and three years later, she traveled to Beijing to study the ancient musical instrument at the primary school affiliated to the Central Conservatory of Music.

"I was trained as a pianist and guzheng player when I was a little girl, which allowed me to observe two different musical instruments — one from the West and one from the East — at the same time," says Yuan, now a professor of the Central Conservatory of Music.

"As well as the techniques of playing guzheng, the musical instrument has a deep culture and spirit. That's why I chose to become a guzheng soloist," says Yuan.

About two decades ago, as a member of an ensemble founded by avant-garde Chinese composer Liu Sola, Yuan traveled to Germany to perform during an art festival. The sound of guzheng and Liu's vocals against a beat provided by an American jazz musician on drums received warm feedback from the audience.

"We improvised onstage and the musical chemistry couldn't be described in words. It was one of the most memorable performances of my career," says Yuan.

For years, she has been devoted to bridging cultures with her instrument. In 2009, she performed for the former US President Barack Obama during his visit to China. In 2017, she performed at top schools in the US, such as the Juilliard School in New York, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as famous performing arts venues, including the Lincoln Center in New York.

As a teacher, Yuan says that her mission is to not only offer instruction to students at the Central Conservatory of Music, but also to amateurs.

"There are many music lovers playing guzheng, especially children. I am trying to make learning the instrument much more contemporary and fun for them," says Yuan.